Tag Archives: disappointment

Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

After Patrick Rothfuss, I have really high standards for “epic” fantasy. GRRM has set up a series that is often seen as the current epitome of epic fantasy – with the fear that he and it, like Robert Jordan and The Wheel of Time, will continue until the series inadvertently outlives the author. It made for a natural follow-up while I was still in an epic fantasy mood – and the recent series in on our to-be-watched list.

Writing-wise, it’s not nearly as captivating to me as Rothfuss was. Oh, it’s not bad – there are moments that suck you in, and the concept of the world (a land where seasons last for years) is intriguing, but it’s more about the characters than the world right now. And looking at it relatively impartially or analytically, the characters are basically just stereotypes. Stereotypes with feeling, of course, and well-crafted stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless. The most interesting characters so far are the ones who don’t quite fit the stereotype, or the ones that you hope don’t: Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Jon Snow.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I love the Starks, as you’re supposed to, and I despise the Lannisters, as you’re supposed to. But that’s almost one of the problems: you’re so clearly supposed to. They are all painted with such broad strokes that it’s too obvious what you’re supposed to feel. I gasped with horror – out loud, even –at certain plot points (I won’t spoil them for you) and felt a smug satisfaction at others. But I also felt like hissing every time certain characters appeared and cheering for others. It’s like a melodrama.

There’s not a lot more I can say about it without spoiling things or having read the rest of the series – because, after all, it is the first in a series. It’s entirely possible that some of the things that I felt were lacking in this book (world-building, mostly) will be more fully explored in later books. I’m definitely hopeful that the Wall and the Others will be more fully explored later – they’ve been hinted at so far, and briefly met, but this book didn’t really deal with them at all. (One of the reasons that I think Jon Snow is a more interesting character is because his storyline deals less with the “game of thrones” part of the world and more with the fantasy elements.)

I don’t own the second book, and I have at least two dozen unread books around that I do own, so I am not sure when I’m going to get to the rest of the series. It probably won’t be too long, though – especially if the rest of the series is also filmed, giving me more of an impetus to read the rest.

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Samurai William: The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan, by Giles Milton

This is another book which ultimately (kind of like The Age of Wonder) wasn’t really about the title. The title (and the back-cover summary) say that it’s about William Adams, a 17th century Englishman who wound up in Japan and became a trusted advisor to the shogun. But while Adams is a character, and not a minor one, really it’s more about the East India Company’s attempts to trade in Japan (as an extension of the rest of their Asian trading).

I found it interesting to read about 17th century Japan. It’s not a period and place that I know a lot about, and some of the cultural insights were interesting to me. And I think that William Adams could be an incredibly interesting character: he was the only one of the Dutch and English adventurers/businessmen who adapted to Japan. Unfortunately, this book skips over the process of assimilation, and jumps right to the problems that the East India Company’s agents had in setting up a factory and store.

In fact, for a book that’s nominally about William Adams, he’s not the most well-defined character. I certainly felt like I knew Richard Cocks, the senior merchant, much better than I knew Adams. I understood his issues and his motivations a lot more than I understood Adams’s. The other sad thing/relatively misleading thing about the title is that, even though the subtitle is “The Adventurer Who Unlocked Japan”, the English economic base in Japan ultimately failed – didn’t even last a generation – and internal Japanese politics then led to the country being isolationist for quite a while afterwards. William Adams may have temporarily unlocked Japan, but as soon as he was gone it slammed shut again, with chains on the doors and everything (to belabor the metaphor).

I think I’ve also pinpointed one of the problems that I have with the 17th century. I really hate the Puritan mentality. There is one way to be moral; it is the same for everyone, regardless of situation, circumstance, or personal belief; if you do not live up to it at every moment, then you are inferior and must be punished. The directors of the East India Company seemed to have this belief. They’d never been to Japan, and yet they felt qualified to judge what would best succeed there in terms of both goods and behaviour. Ugh. (Not saying that the English merchants didn’t deserve chastisement, just not necessarily for the same things, and certainly not in the same way.)

Anyway, back to the book itself. It’s a quite readable book. Milton does seem to have the trick of making what is basically an economic history very personal and fairly compelling. My biggest problem with it is that it is more an economic history than a biography, so there was almost a sense of false advertising. (Not blaming Milton for this, I must add – I know from reading authors’ blogs how tricky the politics of publishing and book promotion/marketing are.) If you’re interested in Japanese history and English history and the 17th century in either England or Japan, it’s a good read.

 

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The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

This book has been on my vague “Oh, I heard that was good and want to read it” list for ages – since it came out, really. Once his second book came out, I decided that now was as good a time as any to get to it.

It’s an interesting book; hard to categorize. It is, on the surface, about a boy (the “Pi” of the title) who grew up in India, the son of a zookeeper, and who survived a shipwreck during his family’s emigration to Canada. There’s kind of two parts to the book: before the shipwreck and after the shipwreck. The two are sort of nominally connected, through Pi and the animals, but are not really connected in events or themes.

The first half details Pi’s childhood, and especially his  various faiths. He grew up as a Hindu, but over the first section of the book he also becomes a Christian and a Muslim – all three at the same time. There’s also an element of atheism – although scientific rationalism or something like that might be more accurate. Pi definitely believes in God; he just also believes in the validity of evolution. His perspective on religion is that of multiple manifestations. He doesn’t disbelieve most fundamental parts of Christianity and Islam, for example – he believes that Muhammad was the prophet of God, that Jesus died to save the world and then rose again – he just doesn’t ascribe to the part that says “this is the only right way to believe in God.” It’s one of the more troubling aspects of religion in a pluralistic society.

Then the shipwreck happens and, other than a few mentions of God, the religious aspect of the book is completely abandoned, and it becomes about survival. The cargo ship that Pi, his family, and most of their zoo animals are on sinks without a trace. Pi and a few of the animals are the only survivors. There is a hyena, a zebra (quickly dispatched by the hyena), an orangutan (also dispatched by the hyena), and a Bengal tiger (who then kills the hyena). Pi and the tiger (whose name is Richard Parker) sail on in the lifeboat for 227 days before finally landing in Mexico.

The last bit of the book brought up some issues for me. Pi tells his story to some insurance claims agents representing the ship’s company. They don’t believe that he could have survived for so long, especially with a Bengal tiger – so Pi tells them another story that replaces the animal characters with human characters, turning the story that we have just heard into an allegory for the actual, human experiences that he had. There is no way of knowing, for sure, which story is true, and it turns Pi – up until now a fairly reliable narrator or at least not an obviously unreliable narrator – into a blatantly unreliable narrator.  Was there actually a Bengal tiger? The story as it is told seems to say yes. But there are clues scattered throughout that, upon rereading, might point to the human story being the truth and the animal story being Pi’s way of explaining the savagery of the survivors. Clues like those in The Sixth Sense that you take at face value within the story until you know the ending, and then they can easily be read in a different way. I am going to have to reread this book with an eye to these things at some point.

Overall, unfortunately, I was kind of disappointed in this book. I felt like there was a disconnect between the first part of the book (Pi’s religious explorations) and the second (the shipwreck). The twist of Pi as unreliable narrator almost felt like a slap in the face, like a betrayal – I’d trusted him and empathized  with him the whole way through, and I would have liked the chance to do that with the understanding of it as allegory, if it is. Or if it’s not, why pretend that it might be? I don’t know for sure, it just bothered me. And, in a way, it felt like a cheap way to get the reader to read the book again. It put a mystery in at the end, but the solution to the mystery (if there is one) lies before you are aware that there is a mystery to be solved. Maybe it would have been too clichéd or something to flip the book so that the allegorical implication comes at the beginning, but for me it changed the whole tone and idea of the book – after I’d already read through 90% of it with one impression. It doesn’t make the book a lie, but it did feel like a betrayal of my reading experience.

I’m not saying it wasn’t good, though – it was very readable in that “I’m trying to be deep and profound” way that a lot of modern “literary” fiction has. I’m just saying that there were things about it, especially about the structure of it, that I didn’t like.

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Coyote Blue, by Christopher Moore

I usually think Christopher Moore is a very funny writer. Lamb made me laugh out loud more than once (as it did my religiously-conservative grandfather, which is pretty impressive given the book’s subject matter). I tend to read Christopher Moore when I want something substantial but not too dense.

Coyote Blue is not really that funny a book, though. It’s about a Crow who has – sort of unwillingly – abandoned his heritage, right up to the point where Coyote, the trickster, comes back to his life and he is dragged back into it. The book still has the relatively light style of the other Christopher Moore books that I’ve read, but the irreverence of books like Lamb or Fluke just isn’t there. It maybe is meant to be, but I couldn’t find it.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad book, it’s just … less funny than I expected from Christopher Moore. I liked Sam, for the most part, but I didn’t really know Calliope as a character, and what I did know I couldn’t really identify with. The storyline got to be a little bit manic, and I’m still not sure why some of the things at the beginning happened, unless the entire motivation was to get Sam’s attention.

It reminded me quite a lot of Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman. It had some of the same themes: ancient, almost forgotten American gods who originated in Africa (spoiler! and actually something which in retrospect kind of bothers me*) forcing their attention onto the human that they have chosen to tell their stories. I like Anansi Boys better; I think it’s a more logical story (within the constructs of the story, at least).

But, again, it’s not a bad book. I did quite like it. It’s just that if you’re looking for something like Lamb, you might be disappointed.

*Why does one of the more common American gods (Coyote) need to have originated in Egypt, to be the brother of Anubis? Why can’t the American gods and the various American cultures have originated in parallel with that of the rest of the world, instead of being an off-shoot of them? It seems like an unnecessary addition. Sam could have gone to “The Spirit World” to bring Calliope back; it didn’t have to have a random Egyptian connection to make it valid. And if you’re going to throw in random lines about Mormonism being valid (I did kind of laugh at Coyote’s reaction to that), why not also play with the idea that the Vikings were the first “white” people to settle in North America, and have it be Valhalla that Sam finds himself in? Having it be Egypt doesn’t really make sense to me, on a number of different levels. I may not know that much about the Crow beliefs, but I dislike the fact that he went outside an American context when the rest of the book is so focused on the Crow and the “Native American” culture. (Yes, I put “Native American” in quotation marks. They’re not a homogenous group.) I think he probably could have – and, in my opinion, should have – found a different path to the same thing, one that didn’t implicitly diminish the value of native American beliefs and cultures.

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Bess of Hardwick, by Mary S. Lovell

The Tudor period is a fascinating time – rapid change occurred in almost every sphere of English life. In just over one hundred years, England moved from being a medieval, middling-power, Catholic country through near-bankruptcy to being a Renaissance, world-changing, Protestant empire. A lot of things happened, a lot of things changed, and Bess Hardwick saw them all. She moved from being the daughter of middling gentry to being the wealthiest and one of the best connected women in the land. She had almost as much money as the Queen, and was grandmother to an apparent heir to the throne. She married four times, at least three of which started off very well, and was very careful and shrewd with her money.

It’s too bad, really, that such a fascinating time and such a fascinating woman didn’t have a more fascinating book. It wasn’t a bad book, really, and I’m glad I read it, but it was not nearly as good as I was hoping, and didn’t give as much of a sense of Bess herself as I was hoping.

It’s possibly because I read the Georgiana biography recently, which gave such a clear picture of Georgiana’s personality, that I was disappointed in the portrayal of Bess in this. In the Georgiana biography, I could imagine what Georgiana would do in almost any situation, whether it was in her own life or in today’s world. I didn’t get that same sense of Bess.

I want to stress that it wasn’t a bad book – it gave a wonderfully clear picture of life for the middle and upper gentry in Tudor times, the switching back and forth between Catholic and Protestant, the stress of living at a monarch’s whims. But I got a much better picture of Bess’s husbands – particularly William St Loe and the Earl of Shrewsbury – than I did of Bess herself.

Perhaps the best example of this lack of personality for Bess comes in the description of her friendships. She was fairly close to Queen Elizabeth, but it’s difficult to really be friends with your monarch. But Bess had a best friend, Lady Frances Cobham. Lovell refers to Lady Frances as Bess’s best friend and her closest female friend. Number of times she’s mentioned, according to the index? Five. How on earth are we supposed to get a sense of who someone was if we aren’t told anything about their relationships? And I don’t just mean their marriages or lovers, but what they talked about with their friends, what they did when they weren’t on display. I can’t imagine the story of my life being told without weaving in the story of my best friend – without all my friends. Or my sister’s life without hers. So why do we get a biography of Bess that mentions that she has a best friend but doesn’t say anything about where they met, how they became friends, what they did together.

And that’s just a symptom; throughout the book I never really felt like I knew Bess. I knew what happened in her life, to some extent, and I knew a lot about what happened to her family and the people around her, but I didn’t really feel like I knew Bess. And that was disappointing to me.

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In Defense of a Genre

I ran smack up against the romance-novel prejudice today at one of my volunteering gigs. The manager and book sorter were trying to decide whether and where to shelve a bunch of Danielle Steel/Catherine Cookson type books that they had gotten. I didn’t actually see the books, since I was on the computer at the time, but those were two of the names that they mentioned in their discussion. The books appeared to be “single title” books, the kind that are often about 500 pages long or so, densely plotted. They may not be to everyone’s taste, but they’re not trash. And yet the manager and book sorter at the shop were trying to decide where to put them so that people could find them, but so that they wouldn’t be obvious. Because they don’t want anyone to think that they sell “that kind of book.”

Those were their words. “That kind of book.”

What kind of book exactly? Best-selling books? Danielle Steel (and again, let me clarify that I don’t know specifically that they were actually Danielle Steel books, just that they were Danielle Steel – like books) was on the Publisher’s Weekly best-seller list throughout the 80s and 90s. There were years when she had no less than three books on the best-seller list. Books they don’t like? Nobody’s going to like every book, or every type of book. If you limit what you sell in your store to books that you like, you’re going to run out of books and run out of customers. Books that are badly written? We sell Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell, both of whom have (to my eye) absolutely abhorrent writing styles. (I say this as someone who has read at least four of both those authors’ books.)

I’m willing to be proven wrong, but I’m pretty sure that by “that kind of book” they meant romance.

Because who would possibly want to read romance novels? Who would want to read books that usually have a female lead (and often a strong female lead), that portray relationships both platonic and romantic, that present fairly universal questions about character and human interaction and love? No, we’d much rather read something that preys on our fears both personal and global, that glorifies violence, that is usually racist (against whatever ethnicity is currently “the enemy”) and sexist. Or, even better, the agony memoirs of people – usually children – that have gone through horrific ordeals of abuse and neglect, so that we can feel appropriately guilty about the state of the world, slightly smug that our lives aren’t like that, and satisfied that we’re part of the solution simply by participating in the publicity of the problem.

Note: My problem is not with the authors or victims of the “Tragic Lives” genre. My problem is with the people who read them for the reasons that I’ve given above, which then lead to things like James Frey’s “memoir” because hard-life memoirs are what sell.

But, yeah, who would want to read romance? Who would want to believe that, even for a little while, happy endings are possible? Who would want to identify with someone whose life isn’t quite perfect, who doesn’t have their ideal job or their ideal house, or whatever, but still gets the guy (or girl) anyway? Who would want to fantasize about being a princess, historical or modern, dripping with jewels and dancing at balls, who finds the one man who doesn’t care about her money?

Yes, they’re escapist. They’re fiction. A lot of fiction is meant to be escapist. Yes, a lot of them are not very good. The same can be said about a lot of different genres, and yet those are still on the shelves, while romance is hidden away, shoved to one side or tucked on a lower shelf so that the “good” books take center stage.

Oh, and when it comes to the “sex” argument, I have read more explicit sex scenes in crime novels and “literary” fiction than I have in most romance novels.  In fact, I was starting to wonder if a requirement for “literary fiction” was to include at least one graphic sex scene. Sometimes a scene that only included one person.  (Ew.) (Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom. You probably didn’t need to know that.)

Romance novels are a valid genre, and a valid choice for readers. Just like any genre – crime, fantasy, science fiction, etc. – is a valid choice for readers.  To limit that choice simply because of your personal preference is unprofessional at the very least.

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Aphrodite’s Workshop for Reluctant Lovers, by Marika Cobbold

I first heard about this book on a blog – can’t remember which one, sadly – and thought it sounded interesting. Interesting enough, at least, to put on my amazon wishlist (which is what I use as a reminder of books that sound interesting. You know, in case I ever run out of books to read). So when it was on one of the display shelves at the newly refurbished local library, I couldn’t resist.

And it is an interesting concept, for sure. Romance novelist turns cynical, Aphrodite and Eros try to help, etc. And I really wish I’d enjoyed it more. I didn’t not enjoy it, but it certainly didn’t live up to my expectations, given the glowing review that had made me put it on the wishlist in the first place.

I liked the main character perfectly well. I was incredibly happy when she walked out on her boyfriend, because he was emotionally abusive and icky. And I completely understand her cynicism about love and romance, since it’s something that I feel quite a lot (and I’m only 29).

But. The more I think about it, the less works.

The ending was absolutely the weakest part of the book. All of the character development, all of the story wrapped up in a “here’s what happened” epilogue. And the love story itself boils down to Cupid’s – sorry, Eros’s – arrow. Why do they love each other? Because Eros shot them at the right time. It’s the equivalent of the fairy godmother waving her wand, and it’s such a cop-out.

And the most frustrating part of the ending is that it doesn’t resolve any of the questions that the book poses, which are good, valid questions about the nature of romance and its place in modern life. The book is filled with valid cynicism about romance, the emphasis put on romance to the detriment of love and partnership, and the role and responsibility that romantic, escapist fiction plays in the world. These are perfectly good questions that deserve to be looked at. But all of the cynical doubts are resolved off-stage through a deus ex machine that’s not even seen, only reported.

It left me feeling hollow and disappointed. Yes, there was a happy ending in the traditional romance way (a wedding), but there was no resolution. And resolution is more important than a stock ending. The perfect ending is not the only reason that people (me) read romances. It’s nice, sure, but even more important than the perfect ending is the feeling that the happy ending is possible. That the problems will be overcome. And it’s not about the fact that there’s a wedding as much as the fact that there’s a relationship. There was no relationship in this book, at least not one to hope for. We weren’t given a picture of any relationship other than cynicism; we weren’t given any evidence to support the idea of “this time it will be different” at the end.

If the ending had been good, or at least satisfying, I could have overlooked some of my annoyances in the rest of the book. But since the ending didn’t resolve any of them, I have to wonder why they were there at all. Aphrodite’s behavior as a “therapist” completely mocked the seriousness of both main character’s mental conditions (he has OCD, she has hallucinations that worry and upset her). It may have been intended as comic relief, but it didn’t work. The mental problems of the characters were never resolved either. The hallucinations just sort of appear, probably as a shorthand for “my life is falling apart”, but since they’re neither taken seriously by anyone other than the main character who’s having them, nor resolved, they serve no purpose. (And why can’t a woman be dissatisfied with her romantic relationship and romance in general without seeming to go mad?) There’s also the ridiculous and unfair way that Rebecca is treated as the relationship guru, especially by her goddaughter. Seriously, this girl bases her cold feet on Rebecca’s attitude, and everyone backs her up on this. Since when did writing romances mean that you had to be the perfect romantic yourself? There’s also the previously mentioned lack of a redeeming love story. Every apparently happy couple is really unhappy and usually adulterous. Again, it’s not the ending that makes a romance worth reading, it’s the relationships that build up to that ending. And this book just didn’t have them.

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